What We Can All Learn From Religious Sabbath

Many people incorporate a communal meal into their Sabbath—but preparation is essential: Every Sabbath-keeper interviewed for this story prepares for and prioritizes for the day all week long. Dickstein was sure to wrap up our Friday morning conversation in time to get to the farmers market for the fresh vegetables she’d need for her Sabbath meal.

Social scientist at Duke University Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, Ph.D., is not surprised that Sabbath-keeping requires so much intentionality: The less common a practice is within the mainstream culture, the more difficult it is to keep up with.

Therein lies another often overlooked obstacle of starting or maintaining a Sabbath: telling other people about it. Sabbath is so countercultural that Speedling says many of the women she’s interviewed feel strange explaining it to their friends and community. 

But keeping your Sabbath to yourself might make it harder to maintain long term. In a 2019 retrospective study on clergy members, Proeschold-Bell and other Duke researchers were surprised to see that while Sabbath improved their quality of life, it had little to no effect on major health outcomes.

Proeschold-Bell suspects this was at least partially due to struggles of keeping Sabbath: Clergy didn’t always inform parishioners of their intended rest period, and so they were frequently interrupted on Sabbath day. To prevent such interruption, Tyner and Dickstein both practice the Sabbath as part of a larger community. It’s helpful to resist the “world’s hectic pace” together, Tyner says. 

Some of the clergy in the Duke study also misunderstood rest to mean they had to force stillness and do nothing. An upcoming study currently awaiting publication, however, found that a little instruction on how to Sabbath well could help clergy keep the practice going. After attending a short workshop on Sabbath, 25% started a weekly practice within four weeks, and 46% picked it up within nine months. The interest and motivation were there, Proeschold-Bell says, and the workshop appeared to help with the execution.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Sabbath is that it doesn’t require total militant stillness. Instead, it’s a day when you do different activities than you would the other six days a week, adding what brings you joy and energy and stepping away from the things you feel you need to “accomplish.” 

Sleeth, Speedling, Tyner, and Dickstein all use their Sabbath to focus on the bigger picture: It’s a time to consider your calling, connect to God or a higher power, and relish in nature.

“I’ve met people 50-plus who aren’t sure what their purpose is—they are just going through the motions,” Speedling says, concluding that if we don’t take the time to rest, reconnect, and consider our purpose, it’s too easy to put off.

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